Month: March 2017

“Foul Ball: Plus Part II” by Jim Bouton Review

foul-ball

Foul Ball: Plus Part II

Author: Jim Bouton

Release date: 2005

**This review has been updated following the reading of Part Two**

Three books in and I am still a big fan of Jim Bouton’s writing. The retired baseball player’s style foreshadowed the invention of the blog and once again kept me entertained in this page turner about his attempt to get a lease on a local minor league ballpark. The resulting struggle against the local government comes off as a one sided rant by a jilted lover with enough details mixed in that you end up wondering how this is a story you haven’t heard more about.

The highest praise I can give is that upon finishing part one of the book I checked Wikipedia for an update and began trying to track down the updated version of the book for the rest of the story. After tracking it down, I’m glad that I did although Bouton accurately subtitled the Post Script to the book accurately when he wrote “In which what happens next could have been easily predicted by the reader.”

Bouton sold this reader on the rationality of his proposal for the stadium in the first book, but he also threw numerous people in the town of Pittsfield under the bus for their shady dealings with himself and partner Chip Elitzer. One can only imagine how polarizing a figure he must have been in the town following the publication of Part I. As a result, it’s clear from the start that the publication of the book has served as a Catch 22 for our heroic investors. Certainly the publication aided in getting the incumbent politicians replaced with those that would invite Bouton and Elitzer back, but it also simultaneously made both individuals Public Enemy #1 and 1a in the process.

Along with Bouton’s first three baseball biographies, this Bouton series of books beats out about everything I’ve read in the baseball non-fiction genre except the excellent “Veeck As In Wreck.” Highly recommended for fans of 30 for 30.

5-star

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“Rabbit Remembered” by John Updike Review

rabbit remembered

Rabbit Remembered

Author: John Updike

Release Date: 2000

Return to the world of Brewer, Pennsylvania to check in on the Angstrom clan in this nostalgia trip by John Updike. Set ten years after the excellent “Rabbit at Rest,” this book brings back the supporting cast from the previous four books by focusing on Nelson and Janice as they become aware of Harry’s illegitimate daughter Annabelle. Along the way we get updates on Nelson’s wife Pru, two children Roy and Judy and even minor characters like childhood friend Billy and Rabbit’s rival Ronnie Harrison.

I imagine reading these books when they came out was an amazing experience as each book brings back characters years apart and shines a light on their lives. This book felt the tidiest in the entire series which made it more enjoyable than “Rabbit, Redux” (which was a mess in the sense that it was all over the place) but less entertaining that “Rabbit at Rest” (which felt more free to tell its own story rather than be tied to nostalgia).

The real joy in reading this book was the nostalgia from my own life as the events in this book finally got to events that I grew up being aware of. Updike has always spent a lot of time visiting the headlines of the year in the the Rabbit book takes place. This has served well to both set the setting for the book on a macro level as well as provide political views of the characters in reaction. However most of these books were written before I was alive or cognizant of those same headlines. “Rabbit Remembered” spends time on the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal, Y2K and best picture nominee “American Beauty.” The result for me was a stroll down memory lane both with characters I’ve spent four books with as well as with the headlines of my own youth.

As a series the Rabbit books are fairly uneven, but the positives definitely outweighed the negatives for me. I consider book four to be the conclusion of the series, and while this novella did not detract from that ending in any way it also felt very anticlimactic in wrapping up the story of Nelson and crew in comparison. The biggest strength was in characters like Nelson and Ronnie, who originally did not appreciate Harry, finding reason to remember him and even stick up for him at times. Saying goodbye to Rabbit and the folks in Brewer was sad enough in book four; “Rabbit Remembered” is a good reminder that a trip down memory lane is worthwhile if there was enjoyment on that path in the first place.

3-star

“How To Be a Man (And Other Illusions)” By Duff McKagan Review

how to be a man

How to Be a Man (And Other Illusions)

Author: Duff McKagan

Release Date: 2015

I originally read Duff’s first book, “It’s So Easy and Other Lies” shortly after reading Slash’s autobiography. Between the two, I preferred Duff’s book for several reasons: it was obviously written more by the musician than a ghost writer; the book had more humor in it; and the story extended to the Velvet Revolver era. I’m happy to pick up another book by McKagan based on that one, although where “It’s So Easy…” was a great biography for any music fan “How to Be a Man (And Other Illusions)” is definitely more in the vein of for hardcore fans only.

The style of this book is about half life lessons and half biography of events since “It’s So Easy…” was published. That includes some very cool events, including a book tour, a new band (the excellent Walking Papers that I’d recommend any rock fans check out), and even some reconciliation with Axl Rose. The events stop short of the Guns ‘n Roses reunion however, which is unfortunate because the story of Axl and Slash patching things up would probably be the most fascinating story in any Guns ‘n Roses biography.

Interspersed in those biographical chapters are life lessons from Duff. There are also several short chapters on subjects like dating and parenting, some more successful than others. My main criticism of the advice portions of this book is that McKagan seem to be writing as a character. Much of the advice begins “Make sure your chick….” or something in similar vernacular. While McKagan certainly has a rock and roll attitude to much of his writing, he also comes across much more intelligent in most of his writing that he does when boiling things down to life lessons.

I loved the section on 100+ records every dude should own which gave me some solid education on punk rock. The section on books to read was less successful as it was much more limited in its variety. The van tour by Walking Papers was probably the backbone of the book and served as an interesting anchor to keep coming back to, however the shadow of the Guns ‘n Roses reunion hangs over the book as the mega event that the reader knows the outcome of but knows will take place after the book is over.

With all of the excitement of Guns ‘n Roses successful reunion as well as the popularity of McKagan’s daughter’s band The Pink Slips, one can only suspect that McKagan will have plenty of material for another installment in his biography series. If Chris Jericho and Theodore Roosevelt can justify three volume biography sets, then the bass player from GnR, Loaded, Velvet Revolver, Walking Papers and more will have me back at the book store for round three as well.

3-star

“The Infinity War” by Jim Starlin and Ron Lim Review

Infinity War

The Infinity War

Created by: Jim Starlin and Ron Lim

Release date: 1992

Following on the events of the Infinity Gauntlet and Warlock and the Infinity Watch, Jim Starlin continues the saga of Adam Warlock, Thanos and the Infinity Gems in the Infinity War. Included in this collection is the Infinity War limited series, Warlock and the Infinity Watch #7-10, and the stories I, Thanos from Marvel Comics Presents #108-111. I’ll echo other reviewers and state that the proper order to read these issues is not as presented in this collection but instead as:

1. Warlock and the Infinity Watch #7.
2. Infinity War #1-3.
3. Marvel Comics Presents #108-111 (The I, Thanos stories at the back)
4. Warlock and the Infinity Watch #8.
5. Infinity War #4-5.
6. Warlock and the Infinity Watch #9-10.
7. Infinity War #6.

The biggest problem that this series faces is the curse of following up a very successful event and just not working as well in comparison. The main culprit is a villain that seems over the top evil in the Magus, which makes sense to some degree because he is the evil portion of Adam Warlock’s psyche expelled and made flesh. (After obtaining the Infinity Gauntlet, Adam Warlock expelled all good and evil from himself in order to be omnipotent and not destructive.) Besides being pure evil, Magus is also brilliant enough to foresee the exact reactions of everybody from Thanos to Captain America to Galactus to his maneuvers. The result is a plan that plays out too tidy over the course of the story.

Turning Thanos from the villain to a sidekick for Adam Warlock provides some of the better material in this book, and also allows a side story into Gamora’s origin to fit in (which also has the most adult material in the collection). However it also constantly reminds the reader how much more fun the Infinity Gauntlet with evil Thanos was by comparison. Along with the Magus are a ton of evil doppelgangers of the villains which are completely impotent when it comes to threatening the heroes. During the course of this story, if the doppelgangers are killed they disappear, and for the two heroes they actually beat in battle, everything is reset to back to normal by the end.

The characters that aren’t Adam Warlock or Thanos are profoundly useless during this book, with the lone exception of Doctor Doom and Kang who provide some of the best moments, constantly saying one thing and thinking another. Doom’s arc is one of the best parts of the series, up until it ends and is summarily discarded and never mentioned again. The other most intriguing question is who possesses the Reality Gem, but because this collection includes ongoing titles it’s unfortunately not one that is provided any resolution. The end result is a fun operatic space saga that never escapes the shadow of the Infinity Gauntlet.

3-star

Rank the Series: The Sword of Truth by Terry Goodkind

When I first started the Sword of Truth series, I loved it.  I hadn’t read a lot of fantasy, and as a result I was surprised at the mixture of likable characters and adult drama that filled the pages.  So I continued to read, and Goodkind continued to write, and write and write.  As a completionist, I stuck with them, even though the stories became more and more predictable and repetitive.  For this being a twelve book series (as of this writing), not a lot happened in the later books.  I have spent countless hours reading these massive books, and I can say that not all of those hours have been rewarding.  If I could go back in time and talk to my younger self about my reading habits, the advice I’d give him would be “The Sword of Truth series will disappoint you, more than half of the books are not good and the payoff is only average. Then, when you think you’re finished, he’ll release another book that’s really bad.  If you insist on reading this series, just read the good ones and read recaps of the bad ones.”  I’m sure I wouldn’t have followed my own advice (I’m like Joseph Gordon-Levitt in “Looper” that way), but here’s my breakdown of the books in this series and where the reader should drop off in favor of a recap:

 Wizards_first_rule

1.       Wizard’s First rule –A solid introduction to this world and its characters, one that has unfortunately been damaged by the end of the series.  While Richard and Zedd are faily prototypical heroes of Fantasy, Kahlan’s role as a confessor was unique enough to give make this a plunge worth taking.  After reading “Confessor,” you will realize a lot of what the characters believe in this series are lies and the drama of this book was mostly unnecessary.  But you won’t realize that yet, so I say go ahead and read this one if you’re interested in this series. Overall rank – 3rd out of 12.

       READ IT

Stone_of_Tears

2.      Stone of Tears – More than any other book in the series, Stone of Tears expands the world of the Sword of Truth series and leaves the reader optimistic about the scope of amazing stories Goodkind will surely share with his readers.  The Sisters of the Light and the expansion to Aydindril provided enough change from the previous book to distract from the normal problems that were starting to pop up in the writing. Because it was early in the series, there was less prior material to recap as well.  Overall rank – 2nd out of 12

       READ IT

blood of the fold

3.      Blood of the Fold – At this point in the series, I still enjoyed this book but also realized that Goodkind was fairly limited as a writer. Tons of time is spend recapping prior events and lengthy speeches by characters become more frequent.  Goodkind also spends a great deal of time describing acts of violence against women, more so than in the rest of this series (which still deals with this quite a bit).  Even if the scenes don’t bother you, you’ll realize quickly how often Goodkind uses this as a crutch for generating tension in his plot.  Overall rank – 4thout of 12

       READ IT

Temple_of_the_Winds

4.      Temple of the  Winds – The Hallmarks of what ruins most of this series begin here and are on full display.  The villains are all sadistic clones of each other, prophecy comes up out of nowhere that foreshadows the end of everything and isn’t mentioned again before or after this book, the magic used at the end and reveal of the Temple of the Winds are deus ex machina that completely ignore the rules of magic set out in other books.  Also, the way that Kahlan “betrays” Richard in blood was about as close for me to throwing a book in the garbage as I got in this series.  Overall rank – 6 out of 12 (Yes, that means many of these books are really bad).

       SKIP IT, READ A RECAP

Soul_of_the_Fire

5.      Soul of the Fire – A lot of the same problems as the last book, but this book sets the new tone for the series that every book will follow, namely that no character in the book knows anything about magic.  Wizards and the like such as Zedd, Nicci, the Prelates, Nathan etc. will argue with Richard about what magic can and can’t do.  **Spoiler alert for the series**  Richard is always right, in every book, every time. Despite that, these same experts (his teachers) will doubt him through every book.  Finally Richard will solve the problem through some amazing magic at the end that comes out of nowhere, then be treated as an amateur again at the next book and also forget how to use magic yet again until the ending.  Overall rank – 7 out of 12.

       SKIP IT, READ A RECAP

Faith_of_the_Fallen

6.      Faith of the Fallen – The last good book in the series, and my favorite entry overall.  Look, it’s Goodkind, so it’s not perfect.  This is the preachiest book in the entire series, but the story and characters were all at their most enjoyable.  Throughout the Sword of Truth, with almost zero exceptions the characters are archetypes that don’t change or do anything unpredictable.  In this book, Nicci has an actual character arc and grows as a person.  I’d describe this as Goodkind doing a good Ayn Rand impersonation, so it’s definitely not for everybody but it was well done.  Overall rank – 1 out of 12.

       READ IT

Pillars_of_Creation

7.      The Pillars of Creation – The most forgettable installment in the entire series, that’s actually sort of a compliment at this point.  There was nothing about this one that completely infuriated me, but there were also still tons of pages of recaps and character speeches that did nothing to advance the plot.  This is an entry that could have been skipped altogether and not affected the series.  Overall rank – 9 out of 12.

       SKIP IT, RECAP OPTIONAL

Naked_Empire

8.      Naked Empire – This is a bad book.  I’ll summarize by saying the problems that were in Temple of the Winds, Soul of the Fire and Faith of the Fallen are proudly resurrected for this novel.  What I could do, is recap what all of those problems are and spend ½ of a book talking about those problems and how they were addressed previously instead of actually writing a new story, and fill the other half with definitive statements on how we should view the world and what makes a person good (this style of writing could be called “Goodkinding”) but that wouldn’t be very entertaining, would it?  Overall rank – 10 out of 12.

       SKIP IT, READ A RECAP

Chainfire

9.      Chainfire – The beginning of the END.  Book one of a trilogy to wrap up this meandering series that lost all quality 2 books ago. Surely, stuff starts to happen that is important in this book, and the long recaps are abbreviated?  WRONG.  All of the same problems here, including new magic rules that nobody knows and are quickly broken, more dark prophecy out of nowhere.  Here’s your recap: Richard and Kahlan are separated.  Overall rank 11 out of 12.

       SKIP IT, READ A RECAP

Phantom_SoT

10.  Phantom – We’re getting closer to the end, but still nothing much happens.  This book had probably the least interesting plot of any in this series.  Kahlan and Richard are still separated, but now there’s a blood-beast to contend with.  (A blood-beast is another magic thing that came out of nowhere, that nobody has ever heard of, and is tied into new prophecy).  I’ll rank it higher than “Pillars of creation,” “Naked Empire” or “Chainfire” because the stupid blood-beast was more action than any of the entirety of those go nowhere books.  Overall rank 8 out of 12.

       SKIP IT, READ A RECAP

Confessor

11.  Confessor – The best book since Faith of the Fallen (settle down, the other four books were all… not good).  There’s still tons of recap and preaching, but actual things happen in this book!  There’s an exciting Ja’la match, a trip to the underworld, and the final use of magic rules that come out of nowhere and prophecy that doesn’t make sense (because the series ended!).  The end of the book conveniently tries to fix everything, and really there aren’t many consequences for any characters of interest in this book.  Cara and maybe Zedd have endings that wrap up their story, but the rest of the characters are pretty much where they’ve been since book three in the series.  Overall rank, 5 out of 12.

       READ IT

OmenMachineCover

12.  The Omen Machine – Wait, there’s another book after Confessor?  I’ll start by saying this was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Like Scarlet Witch in Marvel Comics, I had to say outloud when finishing this book “No more Goodkind.”  For starters, early Goodkind was well written even when his poor plots and overly preachiness took over.  The Omen Machine was not even well written.  Much of the fun banter is missing, also gone is the feeling of any gravity to a situation.  Despite being a shorter book it was harder to get through than any other in the series.  The big wrap up that Confessor finally delivered?  The Omen Machine takes place ONE DAY later and goes right back to the same well with a new prophecy that threatens all.  Kahlan in particular is useless in this novel, ignoring all of her prior resourcefulness from the series and requiring Richard to do everything.  This series had a few books I’ll remember fondly, but this last book was so bad and it caps off a string of subpar books that Goodkind’s not getting any more of my time or money.  12 out of 12.

       SKIP IT, DON’T READ A RECAP, PRETEND IT DOESN’T EXIST

 Overall Rankings from Best to Worst:

1.      Faith of the Fallen #6

2.      Stone of Tears #2

3.      Wizard’s First Rule #1

4.      Blood of the Fold #3

5.      Confessor #11

6.      Temple of the Winds #4

7.      Soul of the Fire #5

8.      Phantom #10

9.      The Pillars of Creation #7

10.  Naked Empire #8

11.  Chainfire #9

12.  The Omen Machine #12

 **Note – I read these books before I started reviewing each book I read.  My thanks to the many reviewers who have reviewed the individual books in the series for their assistance in reminding me which order to put the bad books in.**

“Lord Foul’s Bane (The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever #1) by Stephen R. Donaldson Review

Lord Foul's Bane

Lord Foul’s Bane (The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever #1)

Author:  Stephen R. Donaldson

Release Date: 1977

I was recommended this book by a co-worker who usually has pretty similar tastes as I do.  While reading it, another coworker saw me reading it and mentioned that they also loved this book.  When I added it to my Goodreads page however, I noticed that this book also has a legion of anti-fans who have reviewed the book with a vitriol that had me pretty excited to see which side of the fence I would fall on.  So what makes this book so polarizing?

Well, for starters the main character rapes an underage girl pretty early on in the story.  (Sorry, I guess that was a spoiler).  In fairness, this happens very early on in the story.  Thomas Covenant is a best selling author who is married and has a son and a decent life until he gets leprosy.  Quickly his whole word changes, as he becomes an outcast, losing his family, his home and a few fingers.  While on the way to the post office he gets hit by a phantom tollbooth-police car and gets transported to the magical land of Oz where magic is real and he is given the mission to relay a message to the elders about the danger of Drool and Foul.  (There are a few words in that last sentence that are a joke, but probably not all the ones you would guess.)

**Spoilers follow** Once Covenant arrives in this new world, he dubs himself “the Unbeliever” as he believes this entire world is a dream.  Despite that, he pretty much sets out to deliver the message and does whatever else this quest asks of him throughout the book without any active resistance.  Upon first arriving in this new world, he is met by an attractive young girl who helps guide him to town, takes her to meet her parents, explain the world to him and provide a big meal to him.  Shortly afterward Thomas punches her to the ground, strips off her clothes and goes to town on her.  Later he runs off with the girl’s mom who sacrifices much by serving as his guide, and he doesn’t tell anybody what he did throughout the rest of the book.  However, much later on Thomas finds out that he has a way with the giant horse beasts in the land, and requests that they go visit the girl he raped every year on her birthday.  **Spoilers end**

So that’s certainly one aspect of the plot that could make people dislike this book.  For me, that part on its own didn’t ruin the book for me, but it was symptomatic of the broader problems this book has.  Namely, Thomas Covenant is an unlikable guy to read.  I would not call him an anti-hero, but more of a whiner.  Convenant basically drags his feet throughout the whole book and is reluctant to do anything, taking vows against killing and usually only speaking up to cast doubt on others.  When it is time for him to be heroic, it is primarily just because he has a white gold wedding ring which imbues him with magical powers in this world, so it’s not like there’s any great development of him as a character to overcoming fear or becoming stronger as a person.

The language of the book was also not for me.  I can’t explain how I can love a book like “Dune” with its own jargon of Mentats and quizzach haderach and what have you, but reading a book about Drool Rockworm and Foul had me constantly shaking my head at the awful names Donaldson came up with to populate his world.  Beyond the names of characters, Donaldson also frequently drops into flowery prose that had me thinking he was writing in parody of the genre with so many characters talking in the same authoritarian wizardly tone.

All that said, I can also see why this book is well loved by others.  The fact that Covenant is such a flawed character made this a very different read from most of the fantasy books on the market.  I can only assume that the allure of reading the sequels is that Convenant eventually grows into a good person or more of a deserving lead character.  There are also some interesting character types populating the world, from the philosophical giants, to the Wood people and Stone people, to those that worshipped the horse creatures.  The best part of the book was the entire beginning/pre-fantasy portion of the novel as Covenant’s leprosy was detailed.  However, the interesting parts of this novel were all relegated to small bits in service of a story about a whiny guy, never deserving of the hero role in a book that ultimately needs one.

2-star

“A Dance of Dragons” (A Song of Ice and Fire #5) by George R. R. Martin Review

Dance of Dragons

A Dance of Dragons (A Song of Ice and Fire #5)

Author: George R. R. Martin

Release Date: 2011

Fans around the world eagerly await George R. R. Martin to finish and release “The Winds of Winter,” a book six years (and counting) in the making, following “A Dance with Dragons,” a book that took five years to write. Now that I’m caught up with those fans, I find myself in a different camp. I worry these books are just turning into as much of a slog for Martin to write as these last two have been to read. Both “A Dance of Dragons” and “A Feast of Crows” have managed to suck most of the fun out of this series in favor of hundreds upon hundreds of pages of shifting characters into place so Martin can (hopefully) provide a fitting conclusion to the series. Many of those characters are among the least interesting still standing in Westeros, or are relatively new and unimportant within the larger story.

Part of the pleasure of this series is a wide range of characters who rise and fall in surprising fashion, usually contrary to typical fantasy tropes. Book five of this series shows the downside of that style, as we spend large amounts of time with characters like Theon Greyjoy (wallowing at his lot in life), Davos Seaworth (who I normally enjoy, though apparently not while he’s sitting in a jail cell), Asha Greyjoy/ Victarion Greyjoy (the single most boring installments in the book), and Quentyn Martell (in an already long book, including this character with his conclusion with the dragons makes me wonder if George R. R. Martin is actually just hatefully trolling his readers at this point). Even normally interesting characters like Tyrion or Jaime manage to drag their feet and not advance the plot in this book.

The most interesting storylines are infrequently visited (Cersei, Barristan, Arya), although they might have benefitted by not being run into the ground by appearing as often as someone like Reek did. The only character that managed to appear in the book frequently and remain interesting throughout was Jon Snow. The Night’s Watch installments managed to toe the line of bringing detailed plot advancement and atmosphere while still staying entertaining. When shocking events happened in the plot, they were done well as it related to this group. I wish I could say the same for Stannis or Tyrion.

These books face several problems other literary works do not. Normally I don’t have the biggest moments spoiled for me by a superior recreation on television prior to reading it. Also, every comment GRRM makes at this point is analyzed and repeated so that even non-hardcore fans come into the books with more expectations and opinions than they would otherwise have. The problem is I didn’t read this book in a vacuum, so when the High Sparrow is mentioned I have a pretty exciting idea in my head about where that story is headed. Likewise, when GRRM states that he considered not writing these last two books and just doing a time jump to the next one, I’m realizing how inessential 90% of everything that’s happened in these two installments has been.

When Martin’s writing is focused on advancing the plot, he can deliver stories (“A Storm of Swords”) that are unequaled in their scope and quality. If he does plan on ending this series at some point, we can only hope he gets back to moving the plot forward instead of spending 1000 pages keeping characters where they are, especially if they are stuck on boats, or riding pigs, or in a jail cell.

2-star